Weekly Preaching: December 2, 2018

November 27th, 2018

Last year, I wrote an all-purpose blog “Preaching Advent,” looking at how preaching in December is so different: getting less time, the quiet calm in worship, music dominating the season, stories figuring in more than ever, the critical need to account for grief and loneliness in a season of froth and jollity. There are thoughts on St. Francis at Greccio, Wangerin’s “Manger is Empty,” Silas Marner, Harry Potter, A Prayer for Owen Meany, and even The Life of Brian, stuff that might fit any Sunday during Advent. I’d commend it to you againAlso, my little book of Advent reflections, ruminating on various theologically poignant phrases in carols and secular Christmas music, Why This Jubilee?, has lots of preaching stuff.

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This year, I do want to go week by week looking at specific texts. So, Advent 1: Jeremiah 33:14-16. So lovely. God fulfills God’s promises — an idea we individualize way too much, making it all about us. It’s God’s promise for the people of Israel, God’s promise to fulfill God’s large plans for the redemption of all of creation. The Hebrew for “promise,” incidentally, is “the good word,” and I like that a lot. It’s less God committing to some prescribed pattern or timeline, and more God being true to God’s own good speaking.

The pledge is that “a righteous branch will bring justice and righteousness.” The Hebrew is so very rich: righteousness (tzedekah) is way more than good behavior, but enters into the Christian lexicon as dikaiosune, a right, a righted relationship with God. And mishpat, justice, isn’t fairness or just desserts, but rather the poor being cared for.

Jeremiah’s laconic vision is stirring and unforgettable. Judah will be saved and, with poetic genius, Jerusalem (zeroing in on the city dominating Judah) will “live in safety.” It's an idea so basic, something we take for granted but most people in the world cannot. Simple safety, not secured by policies and guns, but only by God’s redemptive healing. The city is even given a new name: Adonai zidkenu, “the Lord is our righteousness.” Try out the city council where you live and see if you can get this name change! What a lovely, holy, trustful identification of who we are!

In Feasting on the Word, Gary Charles cites Heidi Neumark who professes to love Advent because “it is a reflection of how I feel most of the time” — and that is a mood of longing. Indeed. Your people, no matter how cocky or self-assured they may pretend to be, are longing people. And they know despair, which Reinhold Niebuhr described as “a failed attempt to secure security for yourself.” Bingo. This is where we live, all of us, all of us longers.

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We then turn to 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, a similarly brief expression of intense faith. Acts 17 narrates how a riot was touched off there when Paul came — and now Paul is grateful for them. He should be; gratitude is linked to joy, as it always is and must be. Joy isn’t fun or happiness times seven. It is the grateful life, understanding how in the thick of trauma and sorrow there is light and goodness.

Most interestingly, Paul tells how he is praying for them. We say “I am praying for…” with little to no specificity. Perhaps we are asking God just to help the person, or to further what the person needs or wants. Paul prays that they will see one another (relationships are everything; imagine such a prayer in a world without iPhones, Facetime or even a decent postal service!).

And then Paul tells them he is praying that “what is lacking” in their faith will be restored. I recall in seminary learning the distinction between fides qua and fides quae, between faith as the content of what we believe versus faith as the mood, the posture of faith in the believer. Is his prayer that they will be doctrinally advanced? Or that the intensity of their faith will be augmented?

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Pretty clearly, Paul is obsessed with their total response to God. He piles on adjectival terms: “increase and abound.” Is he being redundant? Is he trying in words to capture how fabulous, how deep, how extravagant it all can be? What is lacking (hysterema) is the polar opposite of fullness (plerouma). And what is this “fullness” he’s after in his prayer for them? It is love? Not a feeling you have or don’t, but that agape love that is grounded in God’s love, a deep and unflappable commitment? He prays that God will “strengthen their hearts in holiness.” Do we ever pray for holiness in ourselves, or others? What a perfect prayer! Instead of asking God for favors in our unaltered lives, we pray for ourselves and for others simply to be holy.

And why? As a bracing for, and an embracing of the Lord’s coming. If the Lord is coming, if we believe such a thing, then do we pray for trifles, success or comfort? Or for something far larger and more enduring?

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Next is the un-Christmasy Advent reading, the apocalyptic Luke 21:25-36. Jesus, on the Mt. of Olives, overlooking the holy/unholy city of Jerusalem that will be his doom and glory, envisions… what? The obliteration of history? N.T. Wright has persuasively argued that Jesus was expecting judgment on Jerusalem, not an end to history.

Jesus uses typical language — signs in the sky, what Fitzmyer calls “apocalyptic stage props” — to signal that we are into bizarre, symbolic territory far beyond the realm of the doable, the practical, the historical. I wonder if we experience some of these (the confusion and distress, the natural calamities like “the roaring of seas and waves,” with our climate issues and perilous changes!) as reminders that this world is temporary and not to be relied upon all that much.

Reflecting on the natural sky imagery, Kathy Beach-Verhey (in Feasting on the Word) spoke of Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night.” He began as a pastor himself. The preacher might ponder the apocalyptic sky, the small town, the church steeple, and Kathy’s words:

“The famous painting elicits differing reactions from those who admire it. Some see it as a daunting image of a frightening sky, others as something bold and beautiful, others as a glimpse of God. Like van Gogh’s great painting, Luke’s apocalypse elicits different reactions… and this is what Jesus offers on this First Sunday of Advent.”

I love Luke’s capture of Jesus’ courage, and encouragement: “When these things happen, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” We are those who need not cower. We can embrace trauma and hardship and horrifying uncertainty, because we know God’s “got the whole world in his hands.”

It’s way bigger than me and my salvation. Sharon Ringe suggested picturesquely that “the ‘redemption’ that is promised is not a private lifeboat to save a few privileged folk while everything else is destroyed. Rather, redemption is equated with the coming of God’s reign, which spells transformation, healing, and wholeness for all of life.”

How do we live in the meantime? We should “be on guard,” “not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness, and worries…”  This reminds me of the interpretation of Jesus’ parable of the sower (Mark 4). 

My daughter and I visited the Bolton Priory in England, a lovely place with a ruined gothic sanctuary. As we entered to take photos, a woman handed us a prayer card and invited us to something higher than tourism. The card contained this prayer: “Humbly and sorrowfully I crave thy forgiveness... for every weakening thought to which my mind has roamed... ” This notion of weakening thoughts bears some examination and pondering — perhaps especially during this season of preparing for the coming of the Lord.

What can we say December 2? Advent 1 originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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